The Machines Between Us

I almost got into a car accident yesterday. I turn left while a monstrosity of an SUV doesn’t realize there are two left-hand turn lanes. He blindly pulls into my lane, mid turn. Luckily traffic moves slow, giving him enough time to realize he is about to pummel my little red car quivering in his shadow. Rather than quickly pull away and drive off, the guy stops, refusing to move forward. The way our cars are now positioned prevents me from driving away as well. He wedges me in. He looks at me — an austere older gentleman with white hair and oils of entitlement seeping out of the pores on his nose, one wrist casually resting on the wheel of his car, the other cradling his chin like a philosopher. I make a stinky face at him and gesture for him to drive away. He doesn’t. I try an exasperated face. He doesn’t. His face doesn’t change. I realize he wants to talk. Why I wonder? His face betrays nothing — as stern as a judge. One of two things could happen. 1) He will try to blame this near accident on me, or 2) He will try to hit on me. He proceeds to roll down his window, giving the universal signal that he wants me to do the same. I oblige. “What?” I demand.

“Why you do this?” he asks with a thick but unidentifiable European accent.

“Why did I do this?” I reply with surprisingly firm incredulity. I add sarcasm. “Umm, I didn’t do this, sir. This is my lane to turn into. You pulled into MY lane.” I say the last bit like the world’s worst kindergarten teacher talking down to a child who can’t follow directions. I demean. I condescend. His face remains changeless, which surprises me. It’s at this point the opponent should respond with a tactic of either defense or offense. Daggers are met with daggers or bigger swords. But his face doesn’t change. He is neither defensive nor combative.

“Oh. Sorry,” he responds, lifting his hand away from his chin and raising his palm to me in a gesture of deference. No sarcasm, no strings. Okay, wow, he admits he is wrong. This is a first. Okay. I guess this is over. He’ll drive away now.

He doesn’t. At this point we’re blocking oncoming traffic. Cars honk voraciously, but neither my surprise nor the incessant honking do anything to change his face. What does he want now? Is this the point where he starts hitting on me? That can be the only other explanation for what else this man in a giant SUV could possibly want from me.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. He looks me in the eyes when he says it. He makes sure to look me in the eyes. I can’t help but soften. When he almost hit me that thing happened. You know the thing. The thing where the angst of the modern-driver melds with the primal instinct of defense. This is the alchemy that produces road rage, and a moment ago it gripped me. But he looks me in the eye, not to threaten me, not to chastise me, not to hit on me. To say he is sorry. To say he is wrong, made a mistake, and is sorry. To say he is human.

I have no idea if this white-haired ambiguously European man in a giant car intends to do all of these things with his eye contact. I have no idea at all why he responds the way he does.

But he does.

He looks me in the eyes and that simple contact tames my primal-meets-modern road rager. Our eye contact flips my empathy back on.

After a few strange moments of this he finally drives away, and I am so taken aback that my little rage monster inside tries desperately to rear it’s ugly head one last time. “Maybe get a smaller car next time!” I yell at him as he drives away. Not the worst combination of words to throw at a person, but a split-second later they make me feel more terrible than I’ve felt in a long time. It is mean. This man appeals to my humanity. He is not necessarily kind or generous, and he does indeed have a car that is much too big for non-giants, but he does something powerful. He breaks down the machines between us. And I am mean.

I’m not a mean person. Snarky? Yes. Sarcastic? Sure. Sassy? Preferably. But mean? I don’t believe in mean. Anger has its place, as does rage and despair and a myriad other “dark” emotions. To be mean to each other appeals to the lowest common denominator. To be mean is to erode another person’s humanity. The damage is grave on both sides.

When I get behind the wheel of my car and I feel someone has crossed me, I like being mean. At least I think I do. The rage monster has told me I do.

Today’s morning commute continues the theme of “let’s cut Rebecca off.” Car after car pull right in front of me driving about 10-15 miles per hour slower, forcing me to do the act despised by driver’s worldwide — put my foot on the brake. One car in particular drives me crazy (pun intended). A green Lexus (ugh, Lexus) in the fast lane carelessly slows down to 55 mph, then speeds up to 75 when I try to pass, then slows again for no apparent reason, rendering it impossible to get around. My primal road monster takes form once again and I am pissed. I finally get a chance to pass this green Lexus. Yes! Now I can give the driver a dirty look as I pass. I’ll show her. I put on my best stink face and make my move. I am going to punish you good! I turn my head. The driver is a woman, early forties, and she is sad. I can’t tell whether she is crying or not, but I can tell that her mind is full of darkness and it’s taking everything she’s got to focus on driving.

My road monster has convinced me she is slowing and speeding to be a jerk. To piss me off. To prevent me from passing. Me me me. All cars drive the way they do to make my life difficult, right? Because they are all jerks and idiots. My road monster is wrong, however powerful. She got some bad news this morning. Or maybe her car is driving funny and she doesn’t have the money to fix it. She’s thinking about the kids she has to feed, or the ailing parent she has to care for, or the spouse who doesn’t understand. She’s taking her beloved cat, who is sick in the back seat, to the vet, wondering if this will be their last trip together. She speeds to get there quicker. She slows to soothe her cat. She’s driving away from an unsafe situation, or driving to an unsafe situation. She is thinking about the dead Syrian child on the shores of Hungary. She had a nightmare she can’t shake. She is sure her boss is about to fire her. She is chronically depressed. She is human.

What is it about the machines we build between us that isolate our best parts of ourselves from each other? These machines should simply be tools but they so easily become weapons of cruelty. Why do we forget so easily that we are all human, and we are struggling? These machines are not just shields, they are instigators. They can not only block our empathy but invite the monsters out to play. I see it clearly in the meanness that erupts out of me only when I drive. I see it in the comment of every troll on the internet. The horrible, cruel, racist, sexist, derogatory things that people type into their handheld machines and send through the cyber-machine to reach the rage monster coming from the other side. When did we forget that at the other end of that other machine is a human being?

I love technology. I love social media. I love cars. These things in and of themselves are amoral and require drivers — human drivers. We must captain our technology with our empathy. If we don’t, the primal monsters of indifference and rage will gladly take the reins.

And you know the truly wonderful thing about empathy? It can’t be machinized. It is supremely human and sacred. It can only be seen in the look on a struggling woman’s face. It can only be heard in the sound of a desperate child. It can only be understood when two sets of eyes meet, beyond the machines, and invite each other in. It’s magical. Don’t you want to live by magic?

Get out of your machine today. Look each other in the eyes. Even the worst of all jerks has to take his beloved cat to the vet for the last time. Try to understand.

utne-editorial-illustration---empathy---rawtoastdesign

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